October/November 2003

One of the problems with a writing career is that it doesn't break down into neat monthly chunks; that's why you're getting a double column this time. The other problem is that these days a writer is bound to his computer. When software goes on the fritz, he can lose a week or more waiting for the repair shop to trouble-shoot extensions--and that might just be the first of many hassles. Computers learned their ornery ways from cars.

Still, every cloud has its silver lining. After relinquishing my iMac in October and going two nervous days without e-mail, I found it blessed relief to sit on the living-room floor with volumes of the Carl Barks Library and back issues of the National Geographic spread around me, doing research in the good old-fashioned way. "Every Barks fan's dream," smirked a friend in Los Angeles. Let him smirk. There's something immensely satisfying about working with pen and paper.

Thanks to that week on the carpet, I've complied a master list of Barks' borrowings from the Geographic, culled largely from my articles of the past twenty years, only fuller and finer-tuned. Actually made one or two fresh discoveries! The week before, I blocked out a chronology of the artist's career as reflected in his comic books, from the earliest tales, animation inspired, to the campy farces of the 1960s. Chunks of that timeline were written in a coffee shop while waiting for car repairs, others were drawn from five-year-old notes, but when it all came together on the computer, it came in a rush, and I e-mailed it to Denmark without proofreading. Later, when the iMac came back from the shop, I printed out a copy, and--damn!--it's good. It's a shame it's just groundwork for a larger project and will never see print separately.

It's also a shame that turning editor again has cut into my scripting; I haven't penned a story in weeks. I wish I had the energy of Michael Barrier, whose web site on comics and classic animation has been growing by leaps and bounds. In the last few months he's posted book reviews, critical commentary, and interviews with artists and creators. He's also found time to publish a duck story, and if you like the old Barks ten-pagers, you should snag yourself a copy. Admittedly, the story is ten years old, but this is its first printing in America. I remember when Mike showed me his outline in 1992, and his first correspondence with Barks regarding it. "The 'Stop the Presses!' script has many possibilities for good gags of which you mention a few," responded the artist. "Be careful about stories that involve complicated drawing like huge printing presses. One or two shots of a complex machine is about all an artist can do in any one story and make a living wage" (letter of March 27, 1966). You'll find "Stop the Presses!" in Gemstone's Donald Duck and Friends No. 309.

I don't anticipate much more of my own work appearing in Gemstone's comics for a while. Six of my stories have been drawn by now, but until they see print in Europe, we won't get them stateside. Just now my big concern is to push an older script through production. About a year ago I gave a cameo role in one story to Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes. This October, when Andsnes was in San Francisco playing a recital, I worked up the nerve to tell him that he'll be featuring in a Donald Duck comic as Leif Bon Ove, a Goth-dressing youngster who plays concerts of funeral marches. Andsnes was tickled at the idea, and I hope you will be, too. I also hope Egmont's artist is up to the challenge; I sent along photographs for him to model the character.

From one Nordic musician let's move to another for this month's review:

Jean Sibelius. Symphony No. 6, Symphony No. 7, Tapiola. City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo. Erato 0927-49144-2.

Two years ago, when Oramo began his Sibelius cycle, my hopes ran high. His first disc, containing Symphonies Nos. 2 and 4 (Erato 8573-85776-2), was a winner, with sonics to rattle the rafters. The discs that followed haven't exactly lived up to that promise. The sound remains glorious, but I find myself wanting more personality in the music. I held off posting this review until I could watch Oramo conduct the Sixth Symphony and Tapiola in San Francisco on November 20. The concert, by and large, bore out my impression of the disc.

Oramo opened the program with a piece by a contemporary Finnish composer and Bartok's Viola Concerto--I mention this because he came so much more alive for the second half, doffing his glasses, conducting sans score, and moving expansively on the podium. He even looked happier--does one look happy for Sibelius, I wondered? I kept thinking that his take on this music is that of a young man: taut, athletic, and brisk--too brisk for Tapiola, certainly. Sibelius' last tone poem is about dark, primordial forces that inhabit the deepest reaches of the pine forest. It's meant to be frightening in the way H.P. Lovecraft's C'thulu is frightening. Oramo has the right relentless momentum, his orchestra blares and growls, but he pushes the music too hard, so it never has a chance to brood and loses its feeling of mystery.

This approach works better for Symphony No. 6, a piece the commentators all regard as an anomaly. I'd call it Sibelius' Classical Symphony, but he wasn't trying to write a retro work like Prokofieff. Sonata form and dance rhythms don't pertain, though now and then we catch a strain reminiscent of Respighi's Renaissance borrowings--Sibelius was a great fan of Palestrina. "It's wild!" was the way Oramo put it when I spoke with him after the concert. The whole orchestral palette that we've come to expect from the composer is present: skittering strings to evoke plashing water, bird calls on the woodwinds, and thunder rumbling distantly in the horns and drums. But there is no heroic rhetoric to latch onto, no Sturm und Drang, and the movements don't so much build to a climax as simply, tersely stop. Perhaps Sibelius should be taken at his word that he was writing, "above all, a poem." Oramo does this wild, poetic music justice simply by keeping it moving, and by keeping its sounds and textures in focus. Neeme Järvi's performance on BIS (CD-237) is more urgent, but I'm not sure urgency is what this music wants, and his twenty-year-old recording can't compete with Erato's sonics.

Before listening to Oramo conduct the Seventh Symphony, I somewhat unfairly put on Leonard Bernstein's 1988 performance with the Vienna Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon 427 647-2). Talk about Sturm und Drang; with Bernstein there's a sense of menace from the opening drumbeat. We could almost be hearing the Introduction to Swan Lake, with Von Rothbart stalking up on Odette. Massed voices in the strings ascend like prayer (track 5, 2:23-4:50); and a minute later, when the trombones sound their call--so like the swan theme in the Fifth Symphony--it's as if a rift had opened in the sky (5:48). Even the skipping Allegro molto moderato is larger than life, assuming the swoop and glide of a Viennese waltz (track 8).

Oramo holds to a steadier tack. His initial drumbeat, no dark warning, feels more like a muted grumble. Horns don't so much pull their punch as blend with the surge of the orchestra (track 5, 5:33). Where Bernstein whips up his team, Oramo hustles his forward, brisk enough to shave five minutes from Bernstein's timing, but not wild enough to grab us by the lapels. Strings scurry without being frenzied, and the lead-in to Sibelius' last magisterial horn call comes across nicely judged rather than torrential (16:40-17:03).

Since Erato has the advantage of spacious modern sound, it makes sense for Oramo to focus on nuances and present the score to us washed clean, as it were. In his hands, Sibelius comes out of the speakers fresh and chilly as rainwater. Deutsche Grammophon's live recording for Bernstein imparts a brittle edge to the orchestra, yet that suits Bernstein to a T. It would be easy to accuse him of self-indulgence, of making the whole symphony edgy, but his shaping lends it a drama and purpose that Oramo never achieves. Bernstein also has the advantage when it comes to indexing: he get five tracks for this symphony as opposed to the one that Erato lazily provides.

But would Sibelius have sanctioned so much passion? Listening to this music sends me back to Eric Linklater's story about Finland and its great composer, "The Dreaming Bears." If you're any kind of Sibelius fan, I suggest you hunt it up; for now, one quote will suffice:

I was speaking, idly in the way one does aboard ship, of my late visit to Sweden, of eating and drinking and talking till the morning came. "Such hospitality!" I said. "I nearly died of it."

"In Finland," said the woman with the green eyes, "we shall make no mistake. We shall certainly kill you."

There was nothing in that, of course. It was a joke, quite a formal little joke. But, on the other hand, there was nothing in her voice, no movement in her expression, to show it was a joke. No wrinkle of laughter crossed the smoothness of her face, no shadow of amusement spoiled the transparency of her sky-green eyes. She looked at me calmly, unblinking, and I wondered a little uneasily if they still bred witches; and if it would be thought unmannerly to resist a spell. (from Sealskin Trousers and Other Stories, London: Hart-Davis, 1947, pp. 54-55)

That, for me, is what Sibelius is about. His music, even the heroic First Symphony, arrives with the deadpan quality of a storm front but leaves no doubt you've been touched by something supernatural. So if you're seeking a definitive performance of Tapiola or the Seventh Symphony, look elsewhere. If you want to scrape acquaintance with the Sixth, Oramo could well be your man.

September 2003:
Book Signing a Success, Mahler Symphony No. 6
August 2003:
Upcoming Book Signing, San Diego Comic-Con, Neil Gaiman at the Con, Dvorák Violin Concerto & Piano Quintet
July 2003:
New Web Site, Lost Barks Story, Prokofieff Stone Flower Ballet

Copyright © 2003 by Geoffrey Blum
Painting by Jean Despujols copyright © 1951 by National Geographic Society
Disney drawings copyright © 2003 by Disney Enterprises
Engraving of Sibelius by Joan Hassall


Copyright © 2003 by Geoffrey Blum